Cliff McNish, personable author of The Doomspell Trilogy, kindly agreed to talk to the SCBWI Professional Series about school visits on 26 April. These are Cliff's pointers as well as some ideas from the audience; I also added some useful links at the bottom (such as the Society of Authors guidelines for school visits):
- The toughest part of school visits is actually getting a booking. An online presence is a must.
- If you don't have a website, you won't get school bookings.
- Your website is only useful if search engines like Google rank it highly.
- Think about setting up a MySpace page — authors like Darren Shan have very popular MySpace pages.
- Sign up for Wordpool Contact an Author
- Sign up with an agency like Class Act Booking Agency
- Schools are interested in recommendations – if you have five people, you can be sure they will check out the first three — make sure recommendations are on your website or your publicity materials.
- Post a leaflet to your target schools with key information about you, your books and what you can do for them. Follow this up with a letter addressed to the person in charge of school visits (Cliff started by getting the contact details of schools in his chosen target area from Schools Net and then phoning the school secretaries to obtain the names of people in charge of school visits (usually the librarian or the head of English).
- You might do some trial runs for free at local schools but once you've committed to doing school visits, charge at least the Society of Author's recommended basic minimum of £300 — in addition to all travel expenses. A well known author of historical children's serials started by charging the minimum. But once she became more well known, higher demand and market forces allowed her to do less school visits while charging more.
- Before you go:
- Send an information leaflet to the school
- Invoice them a week before your visit is scheduled
- Cliff makes it clear that he expects the library to have at least one copy of each of his books "as a minimum standard"
- It is okay to sell books. Ask the school, "When will I have the opportunity to sell my book?" The best time is usually at the end of a session when the children are enthused but of course this depends on the school — it's unlikely for kids at a poor inner city comprehensive to have available cash to buy books while a middle class independent schools might take care of invoicing the parents for books their children purchase.
- if you have a quiet voice, make sure you ask for a microphone. Most schools have one.
- Be flexible
- A session should take from three-quarters of an hour to one hour per school group.
- Audiences have ranged from 700 for a whole school to a maximum of 30 for a class "though I prefer less"
- It is common for schools to provide a substitute teacher so that the main teacher can go off and do something else. Cliff makes a point of asking for the presence of the head of English or the key teacher involved with the class.
- The best way to break the ice in unenthusiastic groups is to get the kids to chat in an informal way about what they like and dislike. Boys will talk about Anthony Horowitz, girls of a certain age will enthuse about Jacqueline Wilson. Pick something in their comfort zone to help them open up. "You are better off talking about East Enders (than The Secret Garden)!"
- "If you are not an ex-teacher who is used to being in a school all day, you will find the experience exhausting at some deep physical level beyond warfare" — never go beyond three days a week doing school visits.
- Schools will try to get you to do 10 sessions with a 10 minute break for lunch – don't do it. Never do more than three hours, doing more would be unfair to you.
- Follow up: After you've visited the school, send them an email asking if they would be interested in having you again and if there are any schools they would like to pass you on to.
Really useful links:
Society of Authors Guidelines for School Visits
Cliff McNish's School Visit Page
How Search Engines Rank Web Pages
How Not to Treat Authors on a School Visit by Malorie Blackman (scroll down below the contact details)